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Atrocities Early Warning Q&A: Simona Cruciani

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Simona Cruciani works on information management, early warning, and risk assessment in the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. She joined the Office in July 2008, after having served in United Nations field operations in Burundi and Sudan. In Burundi, Cruciani served in the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations ONUB as an Electoral and Civil Affairs Officer. In Sudan, she worked as Civil Affairs Officer for UNMIS. Cruciani’s focus has primarily been on supporting human security, democratization and human rights in conflict and post-conflict situations. She owns Master’s Degrees in Contemporary History, International Affairs and Public Health.


1. You work in the United Nations' Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, which, according to its mission statement, is tasked with "[alerting] relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide." How does your office assess those risks? 

The Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect has an early warning system that was developed to assess the risk of atrocity crimes (genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity) in any situation worldwide.  The early warning system has information collection, assessment and analysis functions.  The information collected is analysed using the Office’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes.

Information is collected on a daily basis, mostly from United Nations (UN) sources, but also from non-UN and public sources.  It is then assessed for relevance and shared with regional focal points within the Office for further review.  Information is received systematically (electronically) by the information manager or is collected through research, exchanges with sources, partners and contacts, or during fact-finding missions. The Office shares a summary of relevant developments worldwide with UN partners each week.

Where developments give cause for concern, the Office conducts more in-depth research and prepares an assessment of the risk of atrocity crimes based on the information collected from all available sources, using its Framework of Analysis as a guide.  The purpose is to assess the risk of atrocity crimes in situations where there are a high number of indicators or risk factors present.  These reports provide a more detailed analysis of situations of concern, and recommendations for action by the United Nations system.

Where there is a well-defined risk of atrocity crimes, the Office may prepare confidential advisory notes to the Secretary-General, setting out on the risk factors and advising on action that could be taken by the United Nations system and follow these notes up with consultations with the relevant actors.

The Office’s early warning products are based on a qualitative methodology.

2. How does the alerting process work? Can you walk us through a recent case to illustrate this? 

When information collected through the early warning mechanism gives cause for concern, it is immediately brought to the attention of the regional focal points.

To give you an example, in April 2014, while monitoring the situation in South Sudan, the office’s staff working on early warning received information from UN and non-UN sources that scores of people in Bentiu and Bor (South Sudan) had been massacred, based on their ethnicity; a local State radio station was reported to be broadcasting messages inciting one community to violence - including sexual violence - against another community - and churches and mosques had been set on fire.

This information was promptly brought to the attention of the focal point for Africa, who briefed the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.  Following discussions at the level of the Secretary-General and his senior advisors, the Secretary-General asked the Special Adviser and the High Commissioner for Human Rights visited South Sudan to follow up on the attacks that took place in Bentiu, and within a United Nations base where IDPs were sheltering in Bor.  Following this visit, the Special Adviser briefed the Security Council on his findings and made recommendations for concrete action.

The outcome of the Security Council briefing was a presidential statement urging parties to the conflict in South Sudan to put an end to violence and calling for accountability for serious human rights violations. In addition, after the briefing, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2155, which extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and called for Security Council members to implement accountability measures in South Sudan, including by supporting the African Union Commission on Inquiry.

3. The Special Adviser's office is also supposed to "act as a catalyst to raise awareness of the causes and dynamics of genocide." What does your office currently see as the most important causes of genocide? 

There can be many causes of genocide – some are more structural, others are more related to dynamic elements – but those causes have not changed over time.  What might have changed is the way in which those causes are manifested in present as compared to past incidents.  Some causes relate to the motivations or incentives of perpetrators to resort to mass violence.  These can be linked to political or economic goals and objectives, to a specific ideology, to a desire for revenge for past incidents that were not properly addressed, or as a response to real or perceived threats that they may feel the targets of violence present.  Each situation is different, but in the last few years there appears to be an alarming increase in violence based on extremist views of identity.

There are other, more structural, causes.  For example, certain situations place a State under particular stress and can generate an environment conducive to atrocity crimes.  Such is the case during armed conflict, where the high level of violence, insecurity and the permissibility of acts that would otherwise not be acceptable, may create the opportunity for perpetrators to consolidate genocidal intentions.  However, situations of political, economic or social (and even humanitarian) crisis or tensions can produce a similar environment. It is not difficult to identify situations in all corners of the word nowadays where this kind of conducive environment exists.  Another common structural cause, or risk factor for genocide, relates to weakness of State structures, which may impede their capacity to prevent or halt genocide or other atrocities. In this regard, high levels of corruption in many countries are increasingly worrisome.

A very important cause of genocide is a history of – or ongoing - serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, particularly when these violations have not been properly addressed.  As history has demonstrated, atrocity crimes in general, and genocide in particular, are preceded by less widespread or systematic violations of civil and political rights, but they may include also severe restrictions to economic, social and cultural rights, often linked to patterns of discrimination or exclusion of protected groups.  When national authorities, in particular– and also the international community - do not address these violations from very early on, there is a high risk that they will increase and may lead to atrocity crimes.

The Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes developed by our office provides a detailed list of the risk factors and indicators relevant to the causes of genocide and other atrocity crimes mentioned here. The Framework is a tool we use to conduct our own assessment of the risk of genocide and other atrocity crimes in a consistent and systematic manner, by looking from a very early stage at the manifestation of those causes.  This tool can be used by different actors for the purposes of early warning, and also by Member States to help them identify areas of success, as well as gaps in their prevention strategies.

4. I know that you have worked in this field for a while. Have things changed much since you started working on atrocities prevention? 

There has definitely been considerable progress in terms of the Office’s integration within the wider United Nations system, thanks to several factors.  First of all, there is much more knowledge now of the mandate, activities and assessment methodology of the Office.  For instance, there has been a very positive response to the development of the new Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, which our colleagues in relevant United Nations departments, offices and agencies say they find very useful, and easy to use.  Secondly, I believe that as knowledge of the Office’s work has increased, so has an appreciation of the value of the Office and the contribution that it makes to the Organisation’s work. Increased knowledge and credibility has led to increased openness with regards to sharing of information and analysis and to cooperation in terms of policy and strategy development.  Thirdly, both the United Nations system and Member States are now much more receptive to issues related to the prevention of atrocity crimes.  The creation of the Joint Office in 2011, which supports both the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, has surely contributed to building a stronger consensus among relevant stakeholders on the importance of preventing atrocity crimes and saving human lives, worldwide.

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